Tourism leaders: Record visitor numbers bode well for Savannah's future
The digits that resonate most, though, are significantly smaller: 43 and 42, references to the average age of Savannah's overnight and daytrip visitors, and $507, the average daily spending per party of overnight visitors.
The age is younger than in 2010 and the spending was up, trends that bode well for the sector in the future, according to local tourism leaders.
'Visit Savannah's marketing efforts over the last few years have been crafted toward a younger, more affluent demographic of visitor,' said Charlie Brazil, chairman of the board of Visit Savannah, the local equivalent of a convention and visitors bureau. 'We must always be conscious of bringing visitors to town today but constantly also keeping an eye to the visitor of tomorrow.'
The average age of Savannah's visitors fell by two years for overnight travelers and four years for day-trippers. The more youthful visitor numbers were reflected in a rise in interactivity of travelers: Fifteen percent more Savannah travelers used social media during their visits in 2011 than 2010, with 14 percent more using the Internet to book their trips and 4 percent more using the Web to plan their trips.
Not coincidentally, Visit Savannah beefed up its digital marketing efforts in 2011, utilizing social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest more aggressively and launching a mobile website.
The increased digital traffic is another positive omen.
'It's hard to figure how much of those efforts translated into trips, but it definitely has increased our top-of-mind with travelers,' said Erica Backus, Visit Savannah's public relations director. 'And that awareness influences future travel.'
The bright future fails to overshadow what was a record year for Savannah tourism in 2011.
The number of total visitors and visitor spending eclipsed the results of 2010, which now stands as the second best year for Savannah tourism. The 12.1 million total visitors represented a 6 percent increase over 2010, with a 500,000 increase in overnight travelers and a 200,000 uptick in day-trippers. Spending grew by 15 percent, from $1.7 billion to $1.95 billion.
Still, tourism officials can't get caught up in what Visit Savannah President Joe Marinelli calls the '-er words — bigger, larger, more.'
'Those numbers are great and really allow us to puff out our chests a little bit, but Savannah's historic district was not designed to accommodate 12 million visitors, let alone
13 million or 15 million' Marinelli said. 'Our focus isn't on the number of visitors but what we can do to alter the demographics of our visitors, to attract younger and more affluent to town.'
Marinelli emphasized several encouraging underlying trends in the tourism data, supplied by third-party research firm Longwoods International. Shopping ranked the highest among activities with overnight visitors, a testament to Savannah's growing retail offerings. And the percentage of travelers who experienced fine dining while in town grew by 30 percent.
'The main area where you grow visitor spending is in hotel pricing, but we've also seen a number of new higher-end restaurants come into the marketplace and a proliferation of boutique-type shoppes downtown,' Marinelli said. 'Those make a difference long term.'
A getaway destination
One key statistic that remained unchanged from 2010 to 2011 was the average length of stay for overnight visitors: 2.5 days.
The flat number doesn't bother Marinelli or Savannah's other tourism leaders, however. Like many of its peers — Charleston, S.C. and Asheville, N.C., for example — Savannah is more a 'getaway' destination than a 'vacation' destination. The city is a 'drive market' for residents of Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando and for those who live in the Interstate 75 and Interstate 95 corridors heading south to Florida.
'Just think about our customers. You have the Paula Deen crowd, who want to eat in her restaurant and take a tour and go home. You have those who want to experience River Street. You have those here for girls' weekends. Couples weekends. All those are getaway crowds,' Marinelli said. 'Considering our product offerings and our customers, getaways are just our sweet spot.'
Tourism officials are pleased with the addition of new attractions, such as the SCAD Museum of Art, the Savannah Children's Museum and the planned Pooler water park. Those should attract new visitors and perhaps result in longer stays. So will growing events, such as the Rock 'n' Roll Savannah marathon, the Savannah Craft Brew Fest and the Savannah Music Festival.
'All those things add value,' Marinelli said. 'We're excited about where we are but more so about where we're going.'
Visitor Volume and Spending Statistics
Average Length of Stay|2.5 nights|2.5 nights|0%
Source: Longwoods International, TravelUSA study
VISITOR VOLUME AND SPENDING STATISICS
Category 2010 2011 Variance
Overnight visitors 6.3M 6.8M +8%
Day-trippers 5.1M 5.3M +4%
Total visitors 11.4M 12.1M +6%
Overnight visitors $1.3B $1.5B +15%
Day-trippers $4M $4.44M +10%
Average Length of Stay 2.5 nights 2.5 nights 0%
Female |49% 52% +6%
Male 51% 48% -6%
Causcasian 79% 78% -1%
African-American 12% 14% +17%
Hispanic 3% 4% +33%
Overnight visitors 45 43
Day-trippers 46 42
Source: Longwoods International, TravelUSA study